Rebels Are Never Done
Department of Nike Archives
From missing the Oregon State High School Track Championships to shattering records on the world stage, Steve Prefontaine showed us that guts are worth more than gold. See how the OG Nike superstar didn’t just race to win but to build a legacy of hope for every rebel to follow in his footsteps.
“I’m going for a run by myself today,” Steve Prefontaine would often tell his teammates. But that wasn’t quite true. He was actually taking the 66-mile drive north from Eugene to the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem to spend time running and talking with the inmates there.
The OSP is one of the oldest prisons in America, housing convicts since 1869. Inside the 26-foot-high walls of the prison is a quarter-mile asphalt track and one of the oldest prison run clubs in the country, founded in the early 1970s by none other than Prefontaine himself.
In his four years at Oregon, Pre never lost an NCAA race at 3 miles, 5,000 meters, 6 miles, or 10,000 meters.
What began as a visit to the prison for a sociology project became a higher purpose for Pre. “After he met the inmates, he started a training program there and he really enjoyed it,” classmate Mary Marckx told the Department of Nike Archives (DNA). “He believed running can change your life, and he liked the interaction.”
Pre would famously run with almost anyone, from high school students to inmates and even young children… Just don’t expect that he’d let the kids win…
It’s been almost 50 years since Pre’s untimely death, but the seeds he planted at the OSP have borne fruit. The run club hosts 5Ks and 10Ks from March to October every year, culminating in the High Wall Half Marathon. Civilians are allowed to join the 150-member running club on the runs—this is sometimes the only contact with the outside world afforded to the prisoners. Eighteen months of good behavior are required to join and there’s a waiting list.
Runners from across the world make pilgrimages to Pre’s Rock in Eugene. They leave flowers, marathon bibs, and letters filled with hopes and dreams as a tribute to a man who showed everyone that running isn’t just about being fast—it’s about having the guts to be yourself. Although many of the runners in the Oregon State Penitentiary Run Club will never be able to take the hour drive to visit Pre’s Rock, the club raised funds for its dedication in 1997.
Runners pay their respects at Pre’s Rock.
“Pre continues to run with us as we honor the legacy he most graciously left at the Oregon State Penitentiary,” wrote an inmate at the OSP who responded to an inquiry from DNA via a state corrections official. “Pre found solace in his visits here. Although he’s remembered as a man who didn’t care what others thought of him, few people on the outside knew where he was going when he came to OSP.
“His natural ability and rebellious nature struck a note with us,” continued the inmate. “While here to train and promote running as a lifestyle, he’s most fondly remembered for simply sitting with the inmates after a run and talking about life’s trials. Now, decades after his visits and early passing, none of those men remain at OSP. However, his spirit lives on in legend and has reached the status of folklore hero.”